38 year old Tom Rixton is a Dorset-raised, Argentina-based DJ and record producer. Along with his wife Patricia he owns and runs Home, THE coolest hotel in Buenos Aires, and my go-to whenever I’ve stayed in the Argentine capital – contemporary, friendly, good value, a breakfast that will fill you up for the day, and all in all highly recommended.

I have to lay my cards on the table, BA is one of my absolute favourite cities on the planet. Argentinians (or is that Argentines?) are great people and stupidly good looking; when the Spanish & Italian migrants went down there, it seems they criteria for entry was based purely on cheek bones. But it’s been four years since I was last there so I thought I’d catch up with Tom when he was in London recently to get the low-down on his adopted home town’s coolest spots.

Tom Rixton

Where should I be drinking right now?

Frank’s is a members-only’ish bar in Palermo Hollywood – you need a code to dial in the phone box for the secret door to swing open, but Patricia or I can get that for you. I love the Oak Bar at the Park Hyatt in Recoleta too – it’s just pure, old-world glamour where the walls are lined with 17th-century oak that was brought back from France in the 1930s. Belushi is another winner, as is Tiki Bar.

Portenos seem to stay up even later than Spaniards – when is too early to go out?

If you have dinner at 8.30 your only dining companions will be American tourists. I’d say aim for dinner from 9, hit the bars around 11 and never ever go to a club before 1 or 2am.

Downtown Buenos Aires

Where can I find the best steaks in town?

Don Julio, which also has a great sommelier; Azema, above all for the fillet; El Puestito del Tio (more of a sandwich kiosk- ask for a choripan) and, as I’m a die-hard Boca Juniors fan (“la mitad mas uno”), I’ve got to add Kike’s place at their stadium – he used to be head of their barra brava supporters, and his reward is the only parilla in the actual stadium itself.

Forgive & forget nothing - it wasn't a bloody goal!

Are Palermo Soho & Palermo Hollywood still the go-to neighbourhoods for tourists for shops and bars etc? What are some other up and coming areas?

Villa Crespo is the new area – great cafes full of hipsters but not so much nightlife yet.

Any cool new local bands I should be looking out for on YouTube?

Placer; Emisor, Un, Tongo, Juli en las Rocas, Trasvorder, Coco, El Dependiente and Travesti – although be careful with that last one on YouTube; it means transvestite so not sure what might pop up.

Are the “Closed Door” restaurants (chefs cooking in their own homes for the public) still popular?

Yes definitely – Casa Felix has been on the scene for a few years and is still going very strong. Then there’s a great one run by Christina Wiseman, originally from New York City, and another new one called 12 Servilletas with Ernesto Oldenburg, who is one of Argentina’s top food writers.

Palermo neighbourhood

If I want to practice some tango, which milongas would you recommend?

Parakultural in Salon Canning – Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays from 11pm. They usually have a band, there is always good energy, it’s great for all ages and it’s tourist friendly. Or La Catedral on Tuesdays from 11pm =- old chairs, and post-punk/neo-goth oddities on the walls. Attracts a young crowd and again foreigner-friendly. Nino Bien on Thursdays attracts many stars of tango. Then there’s Sunderland if you’re around on Saturday evenings after about 11.30pm – it’s actually a basketball court but there’s a really good quality of dancers.

What’s your favourite day trip out of town?

Fly fishing with The Masters of the Fly in San Pedro (north west of Buenos Aires) – the main catch there is dorado but last time I was with my dad I caught piranhas, which was just amazing.

What about shopping? Where do you get your cool threads?

Correa is an exceptional shoemaker – Howard Hughes’ son recently bought 16 pairs there for a cool US$8,000. For men’s fashion, Hermanos Estebecorena always hits the spot, then there’s the likes of Felix, Bolivia and Balthazar. As for ladies’ stuff, you’re asking the wrong man but I know my wife gets a lot of her clothes from Lupe.

Gracias Tom!

www.homebuenosaires.com

Argentina Tourism , LATA

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(Hey folks – please don’t cut, paste & steal this content, or any other from my blog; please get in touch if you would like to discuss using my writing)

After years of isolation, Burma seems to be THE must-get-to destination of 2012. So must-get-to in fact that flights to Rangoon are chocca and hotels in the country are full to bursting too.

Many years ago in a galaxy far, far away (erm, Camden) I worked with Nick Pulley at Bridge the World travel. Since then Nick has gone on to set up his own successful tour operator, Selective Asia, specialising in South East Asia, an area of the world about which Nick is unbelievably passionate and knowledgable. Having used Selective Asia myself to travel to Vietnam last November (and highly recommended they are too), I chatted with him recently to pick his brains on all things Burma.

Nick (in Cambodia not Burma.) "Just popping out for a pint of milk, love".

 Does Burma live up to the hype?

In every conceivable way, yes. Even given its insanely fast ascendance to the pinnacle of Asia’s, perhaps the world’s, travel experiences over the past 9 months. It is worth every one of the accolades that has been bestowed upon it. That is not to say that the sensationalism is necessarily accurate at times – you will not actually be the first traveller to set foot in Maymyo, or the first to explore the Anonda Pagoda, and there isn’t actually any great necessity to visit this year rather than next – however it is unquestionably one of the planet’s great travel destinations right now and is set to remain so for many years, in my mind.

How many times have you been out there?

I’ve now been three times, initially visiting as a backpacker around 11 years ago, and then returning in 2010 and 2011. Whilst the more recent trips have undoubtedly been work based, with numerous hotels and site inspections factored in amongst the more enjoyable travel elements, the amazing thing about Burma is how little it has changed since I first visited. That will of course alter, and in fairness the speed of change over the past year has caught us – along with the travel industry as a whole –  completely by surprise. However I do feel the press have given Joe Public the impression that within two years this will be another Thailand. Another 300 years, or 30, then yes. In reality unique, fulfilling travel experiences in this wonderful country will be accessible for many, many years to come. We are currently only just scratching the surface.

Burma seems to be flavour of the moment – how difficult is it to get flights and hotels? 

Very! Hotel rates have soared in recent months, with some hotels increasing their rates by as much as 200 per cent! Despite this, hotels are not struggling to fill rooms and the occupancy rate is as close to 100 per cent many months in advance. This is not to say that the overall holiday costs have increased by this much, however we are seeing total increases in the region of 30 per cent from last year’s prices (i.e. for a complete, tailor-made travel ‘package’).

Another difficulty is the speed at which we can confirm holidays. If you were booking a holiday in Cambodia with me today, I’d be able to confirm all our services as well as the hotels tomorrow. With Burma this process takes 4–5 weeks, sometimes longer due to the long delays with hotels returning calls and sending written confirmations. This is not intentional on their part, they are all just buckling under the weight of enquiries. Even with our well established, close relationship with favoured hotels the wait is still considerable.

The solution? Travel in the shoulder seasons (May, June and September, October) – either side of the peak season –  when availability is a little easier, also take your foot of the gas. Burma will still be there next year and in many ways it will be even better!

And although things have opened up, how do you ensure you’re directing your money away from “the regime” who still own hotels and so on. Or are things just not that black and white?

I’d say its grey. Despite what most travel companies state, and what everyone would like to believe, most hotels and businesses in Burma have some sort of less-savoury connection. Some of these ‘connections’ are stronger than others of course and there are numerous hotels we avoid on this basis. However to say that it is possible to avoid lining any junta pockets altogether is wishful thinking in my opinion. Perhaps it’s not appropriate for me to say so, however it’s the truth. It’s also important to remember why this demand for Burma has soared recently. Why? Because, if we believe much of what we are told and read, things are improving and the government is sticking to its promise of a delivering a more democratic approach to governing the people. There are many groups that would disagree with this statement and I am not just about to state either way which I believe to be true as this is not my position to do so.

What would be your ideal itinerary as an introduction to Burma and how long? 

I always encourage clients to include the Big 4 (Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake) as they are un-missable, but also to allow time for other, less visited destinations. Hsipaw is wonderful, and I have enjoyed several trips to the Golden Rock at Kyaiktiyo (in fact I have climbed up from the lower base camp at Kinpun to the rock twice). Many of the towns between the key destinations are also of real interest, so allowing a little extra time for them is essential in my opinion. Whilst I would discourage clients from thinking of Burma as a beach destination, it does have a wonderful stretch of coastline with minimal development so a few days of R&R at the end of a holiday is forgivable!

What’s your favourite thing to do in Burma that’s totally off the tourist trail

Trekking in some of the further flung spots of Shan State is certainly amongst my personal highlights, overnighting in homestays as you walk into the back of beyond of this remote country. Unique, unforgettable experiences happen on a near daily basis and thanks to the skill of a great guide, the lives of the people you meet along the way are brought to life. Likewise its great to be able to share your life and travel experiences with them

Any general, top Burma tips?

Allow time and stay flexible – both when booking and once on the ground. Book as far in advance as you can and try not to set your heart on certain hotels if you can help it. In this current climate it’s very possible that some won’t be available and anyway, a country such as Burma isn’t about the hotel ‘experience’. Don’t try and squeeze too much in in too short a period of time. You probably won’t go back, so allowing a few more days can convert a good trip into an outstanding one.

Any favourite restaurants?

Aah, now we’re getting down to the little secrets. We’ve sourced restaurants of all standards and types across the country and these are the sorts of details we like to keep for our own!

OK, I’ll let you in on a few: My favourite restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay are both Indian, although anyone that knows me won’t be that surprised. (You’ll find great Indian, Chinese and Thai food across the country as well as Burmese of course).

In Yangon look out for Asoka if you’re keen on excellent Indian and the very good Feel serves some of the best Burmese food outside of the market stalls. In Mandalay, Spice Garden is fantastic and the seafood specialists at Lashio Lay also deserve a shout.

THANKS NICK!

www.selectiveasia.com

 

 

 

Having recently blogged about Syria, I thought I’d dig out some of my photos of my trip to Iran in 2008.

I know it’s a terrible travel cliche to talk about “the friendly locals” but, as anyone who’s been there will tell you, the Iranian people – we’re not including the paranoid bunch who run the place or their goons in the police or army who prop them up – are incredibly hospitable towards foreigners in a way you really don’t find in many other places, and certainly in a way that’s never reported on the news.

It’s partly, I think, tradition, partly the fact they don’t get many tourists and partly that they are acutely aware of what “the West” thinks about them so go out of their way to show it’s not true.

Here’s my article from the Times that ran in 2009 with a few photos.

If ever you want to go Magic Carpet Travel, based in Ascot, will get you there and assist with visas. And it is worth going, largely as it’s such a joy to meet ordinary Iranians who just want to get on with their lives as much as we do, and partly to realise there’s a lot more to a place than what you see on the news.

Tehran

The metal door to the synagogue swung open and a small boy skipped across the courtyard. He looked puzzled at the three people who stood before him, two of whom were clearly not Iranian. He led us up some steps to the temple, where I slipped a skullcap on to my head. A lady came towards us, smiling. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.

“No,” I replied. “Sorry.”

My friend Annette and I went inside anyway, past a table of food laid out for Passover, and sat at the back as an elderly man read from the Torah in front of eight others.

I’d never have guessed that my first time inside a synagogue would be in Tehran, but Iran is full of surprises. It has a fundamentalist leadership that many in the West believe to be as nutty as a box of pistachios. But it also has a population of 65 million, most born after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (which culminated in the return from exile of Ayatollah Khomeini 30 years ago this month), and far removed from the dour and menacing stereotype often portrayed on the 10 o’clock news. The ordinary Iranian people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve met in more than 20 years of travelling.

Mr Sassan, centre-middle, in natty white jacket and shades. The others were from elsewhere in Central Asia, not Iran.

Some friendly students we met while touring a mosque. As you can see one half of society has an easier dress code in the heat than the other.

Our ten-day trip took us from traffic-snarled Tehran 600km (370 miles) south across the Zagros Mountains to Shiraz and the magnificent ruins at Persepolis, started by Darius I in 515BC and destroyed by Alexander the Great in 330BC. (I have never been to a historical site where the past felt so approachable.)

Then we headed back north to the capital via Esfahan and the holy city of Qom, passing near the controversial nuclear facility at Natanz, which looked more like a car assembly plant. I assume, though, that most car factories aren’t protected by banks of anti-aircraft guns.

Our guide for the journey was the ever-smiling Mr Sassan, a font of knowledge and always ready with a new story. At the start of the trip I believed all he told me, but as the week got longer his tales got decidedly taller.


We learnt that it paid to sit down when he started to talk, for with Mr Sassan there was no such thing as a quick skip through 3,000 years of history and the conspiratorial goings-on as empires rose and fell, invaders came and went.

“Now this is a sad one,” he’d say before recounting a tale of humble beginnings, love, jealousy, power, betrayal, exile and death. And when we seemed incredulous he’d look slightly hurt. “No, it’s true, I’m telling you,” he’d reply. He was also adept at scooping handfuls of nuts and fruit for us from displays in open-fronted shops, walking away waving his cane shouting “Free samples, they don’t mind,” as we scurried off. He was also a Mr Fixit.

Persepolis

In Shiraz, after guiding us to the tombs of the classical poets Sa’di and Hafez – as Shakespeare is to us, so are these to Iranians – he tracked down the best local faludeh, a wonderful frozen dessert flavoured with rose water.

The Mausoleum of Shah-e Cheragh has supposedly been closed to non-Muslims for the past three years, since a mullah objected to the revealing outfits of some Spaniards, so we headed through a winding, covered bazaar to its back entrance for a peek through the gates.

Yet, rather than shooing us away, a young caretaker welcomed us inside on the proviso that Annette put on a chador (an enormous cloth that covered her from top to toe) and that we didn’t go inside the main shrine.

The large courtyard was busy with worshippers paying their respects to the remains of Sayyed Mir Ahmad, who died in the city in AD835. The caretaker asked where we were from. Inglistan? “Ah, welcome to Iran,” he beamed. Could he, though, ask us a few questions? What is the difference between England and Britain, he wondered, and whereabouts was Charles Dickens buried?

Another gracious encounter was with Mr Abbas and his wife in the dusty, backwater village of Imamzadeh Bazm.

We had planned to camp for two nights with Qashqai nomads, but a drought had delayed their 500km migration from the Gulf. Instead of 1,700 families on the grassy plain, we found just one; the women making crisp, thin bread over a stove, the men smoking opium in a tent next door and then coming back to fiddle, glassy-eyed, with a gun that they use to scare away wolves.

Back in the village, Mr Abbas’s B&B was basic but clean and comfortable, and his wife’s cooking was the hit of the holiday: aubergines mixed with yoghurt and mint; mushroom and barley soup; pickles; lettuce dipped in vinegar; and, for breakfast, tea and fruit followed by cheese with chopped walnuts.

Girls and boys aren't supposed to mix. These lads were not so subtly flirting with the girls going past in the park, though.

Students on a day out - we had to force them to smile; moody and mysterious is generally the way to pose in Iranian pictures. Annette shows how it's done.

But, above all, it was the people we met who made this trip for us. Groups of teenage lads – many in trendy T-shirts and elaborately gelled (and, in theory, illegal) hairstyles – always offered us big smiles and a “Salaam” (Hello). After establishing our nationality, there would be an invitation to pose for a photo with someone’s mobile phone. Annette and I would beam away while everyone else adopted an authoritative stare into the lens.

“How-are-you-I’m-fine?” was the standard opener from laughing students. What did we think of Iranians, they all asked. Did we think Iran was dirty? What about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Was it right that Iran shouldn’t be allowed nuclear power? (No mention of nuclear weapons.)

And what about America? “They think we’re all terrorists,” said a laughing, leather-skinned loo-brush seller from his kiosk outside Tehran’s main bazaar. He waved several of his products towards us: “Look! Weapons of mass destruction!”

Juice seller in Tehran

Their simple acts of hospitality were a continual delight – women offering tea as they tended a relative’s grave by a mosque, a man inviting us for dinner after we asked to photograph him on a bridge, several people giving us their phone numbers in case we ever needed translation help.

The women didn’t shy away from us. Far from it. Yes, they wore drab, shapeless overcoats and headscarves, the latter often pushed back to show plenty of hair.

And tourists must cover up too, although Italian tour groups we encountered had their own fashionista definition of what was acceptable. Annette found wearing a headscarf in 35C heat thoroughly annoying and couldn’t wait to remove it the moment she stepped on the London-bound plane.

Think it'll be a while before Starbucks opens in Tehran. And anyway, Iranians would generally prefer a cup of tea.

Our experience in the Tehran synagogue came on our last day in the country. Annette and I said goodbye to the tiny congregation, then returned outside to Simi Alley and bought sweet lemons from a fruit shop. We went to the swankier north of the city for pizza and carrot juice, then explored the Shah’s former palaces alongside dozens of picnicking families.

“Stop and have some tea with us,” we were asked more than once. “Please take some almonds. Tell people in Britain how we really are.” I promised I would.  (COPYRIGHT WILL HIDE, 2008).

David Beckham gets everywhere

Damascus

Two years ago I visited Syria to catch up with friends who worked in an embassy there.

Fantastic place and, of course, so sad to see what has happened to the country now.

As in Iran, there’s a nutty government but warm, friendly, welcoming ordinary people who love showing off their country to foreigners.

When it’s possible to go there again, I hope people flock back. Damascus has heaps of character. There are lovely boutique hotels and fantastic restaurants which must currently be devoid of tourists.

If and when the situation changes for the better, go.

In the meantime, here’s the article I wrote for the Times about my trip there, and the journey south to Jordan afterwards. This article never appeared chez Murdoch and now never will.

Damascus

The muezzin’s words danced around the headstones. From his minaret they pierced Damascus’ dusty backstreets, following me into the immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Cemetery that I had found by accident.

I was trying to get back to my friends’ apartment, but had taken a wrong turn after lunch. The guard in his booth seemed unconcerned by my arrival. I mimed “is it OK for me to go in?” and he in return entered into the spirit of charades, and motioned for me to push the gate open.

1,165 soldiers lie here. Lance Corporal R.J. Norris, for example, died on March 30 1918, aged 21. 23 years and another world war later trooper H G McCormick of the Royal Scots Greys had been killed aged 22 on June 15 1941. Row after row of young men who’d probably left Blighty whistling a jaunty tune to cover up their nerves, only to end up for eternity next to an arid field filled with prickly pears.

Pausing for coffee in Damascus

In these “must plan ahead” double-u double-u double-u days, when even a B&B in Burkina Faso can be reserved over the internet in seconds, Damascus was a reminder to me that a bit of flexibility in a holiday itinerary can reap huge rewards. Take finding the cemetery for example. Or seeing children happily being tolerated skateboarding in the courtyard of the grand Umayyad mosque. So too the unplanned stop at the ultra-modern Julia Dumna café which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Miami Beach, where I couldn’t help but stare at a group of young Syrian “ladies who lunch” nibbling on sushi and smoking hookah pipes, all hidden behind voluminous, designer sunglasses – not really the mental picture of Damascus I’d had before I arrived.

Lunchtime in Damascus

And then there was my train ride to Amman in Jordan. The plan had been to ride a portion of the same railway that had been famously attacked by Lawrence of Arabia (2010 was the 75th anniversary of his death) and which once ran all the way south to Medina. I’d read romantic tales of a rickety old train with antique carriages that wobbled along the route.

In England I was told it went twice a week to the Jordanian capital, but when enquiring through contacts in Syria this was revised in true Inshallah (“God willing”) style to “well, it certainly used to run” and “we think it might still be going, but from Der’a”  to “it’s still going but freight only” and eventually “perhaps it’s better if you get the bus?”

The old Hejaz railway station in Damascus

I arrived with my backpack at the Hejaz station, completed in 1917, around which horn-blaring yellow taxis buzzed like disturbed wasps. If only I had read my Lonely Planet guide which talked of its proposed redevelopment into a shopping centre, because the old 1908 steam loco parked outside was the only train I could find. The empty ticket hall had no passengers, only an exhibition of film posters under its ornate roof and behind that was a door with an Arabic sign which probably said “no entry”. I pushed past anyway. Where once a platform and tracks stood there was now a huge crater.

Back inside by the First Class window a headscarfed lady sat underneath a portrait of President Assad. Could I buy a ticket, I enquired in French, my Arabic not really having got further than “good morning” and “thank you”. She replied I could – but only to Aleppo, and even then that didn’t go from this station.  So, no train to Amman? She laughed and gave me directions to the bus station.

Damascus

I hailed a taxi, driven by a jolly, rotund man with black teeth who seemed genuinely excited to have a foreigner in his cab. I tapped the meter – more charades – motioning for him to turn it on and trying to look stern. He shrugged and laughed and honked his horn as we pulled out into the rush hour traffic. He chatted in Arabic, ignoring my shrugs of non-comprehension, as we ploughed on through drab suburbs for 15 minutes, until we stopped outside a garage with a sign for the Challenge VIP bus company. I was slapped on the back and my new friend rubbed his chin before deciding 150 Pounds (GBP£2) seemed like a fair amount.

Backstreets of Damascus

The last of my Syrian pounds went on my GBP£7 ticket to Amman, which was scheduled to take about five hours for the 180km journey. The bus was full as we pulled out on the dot of 4.30pm, with Arab pop playing quietly on the speaker system, past grubby 80s apartment blocks festooned with rusting satellite dishes and out into the scrubby Syrian countryside on the road south. A young man in a fading Manchester United t-shirt sat next to me, engrossed in a book, while an elderly Bedouin and his wife sat across the aisle.

We reached the border at Nasib in darkness after an hour and 20 minutes. Everyone trooped off so I followed. I couldn’t work out why some people were handing over cash at a booth until I saw the words “departure tax”.

Departure tax? On a bus? No one told me I was leaving from the Michael O’Leary school of border crossings. Yes, I was told, 500 Syrian Pounds (GBP£7) and no they wouldn’t take dollars or euro. The look of genuine panic that spread rapidly across my face must have been obvious to all and this time it wasn’t charades. I was too preoccupied  worrying if I’d at least get a blanket in the border police’s holding cell  to notice my companion in the Manchester United t-shirt organising a whip round. Whether out of genuine compassion or just not wanting to get delayed by an A1 cashless English numpty, notes and coins were bundled together and in a minute I had my precious receipt. I thanked him and pressed some dollars into his hand.

It was a further two and a half hours before we left for Amman – exit stamps inspected, bags searched, visas inserted, duty free perused (bottle of holy water anyone?) and topped off with the somewhat surreal experience of a Jordanian customs official throwing sweets around the bus like a pantomime dame at Christmas. Trundling south into the Jordanian night gave me time to reflect on the benefits of accepting the unexpected and, Inshallah, scheduling the unschedulable into any future travels. The snores of my fellow travellers suggested I was perhaps the only person on the bus to have yet fully grasped this concept. END

Damascus

Palmyra

Relaxing in a cafe on the road from Palmyra to Damascus

Border with the Golan Heights. The Israeli army post is in the background

Golan Heights in the background, Assad in the foreground

All photos & text @ Will Hide